Jimmy Fay is the executive producer of Belfast's Lyric Theatre, which is bringing "Good Vibrations: A Punk Rock Musical" to New York's Irish Arts Center this month.

Overcoming adversity via punk

“The only thing that really works there is a mixture of the cultures.”

So said Jimmy Fay about Belfast, where he is the executive producer of the Lyric Theatre. 

“The whole idea of artists genuinely mixing it up, whether it be poets or writers.”

There’s hardly a better example of the phenomenon than the story that’s behind “Good Vibrations: A Punk Rock Musical,” which the Lyric is bringing this month to Irish Arts Center in New York. Set in Belfast from 1977 through 1981, it’s about Terri Hooley and a music revolution that inspired young people from across the divide. 

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“I’m not sure how mixed the bands were within the bands, but certainly they mixed together and they talked about that as well,” Fay said.

“It’s a very positive story about Northern Ireland, but it doesn’t whitewash it,” he added. "It’s not the usual story of an IRA man on the run or the usual cliches.”

The Dubliner was in New York recently to help prepare for a five-week U.S. premiere presentation that “marks the first musical and largest-scale theatrical offering ever presented by Irish Arts Center.” Performances begin next week and the official opening is on June 20.

“I didn’t know anything about Terri Hooley, a central mover at the time,” he said. However, introductions to people involved with the film of the same name in 2012 led to the idea of a full-scale musical on stage. 

And in time, the critically praised and BAFTA-nominated film was transformed into a terrific stage production.

“The live music – it really has an effect on audiences,” Fay said. “When we premiered it in 2019, it was a smash hit. It was packed to the rafters. Everybody loved it.”

Irish Arts Center’s Aidan Connolly was visiting Ireland during the run and travelled by bus to Belfast, where he took in the show. He suggested that it be one of the opening productions at the new Irish Arts Center being built at the time. Covid delayed that plan until now. 

“It’s a tighter show, the band is really strong now. I think a broad spectrum of people would like it,” Fay said.

The reviews for the Belfast show were certainly more than encouraging. The Irish Times, for instance, said, “The full-throated spirit of punk is alive and roaring” and described it a “glorious” production. 

The Irish News observed that audiences were “losing their hearts to [the] fascinating character” of Terri Hooley, while the Belfast Telegraph commented, “Joy may be a surprising word to describe a bunch of pogo-ing punks playing their 100-mile-an-hour music, but it's the right word to describe the atmosphere at the Lyric for the opening night of ‘Good Vibrations.’”

“I really believe in the story of the show, overcoming adversity. It’s about hope,” said Fay, who before taking up his position in 2014, was known for many years as a talented director and producer from the Republic who availed of opportunities to work north of the border.

“People had to pick sides to survive at a time when it became more ghettoized,” he said of the early years of the Troubles. “The fact that they [the young musicians] didn’t care where you were from, what school you went to, what religion you were, and they were making music together was very important.”

There’s a scene where British soldiers take the punk rockers off of a bus, and when questioning them are amazed that although from different parts of the city, they’re all friends.

“This guy Terri Hooley, he’s a bit of a hustler, bit of a chancer, but his heart is in the right place.

“He sets up the record store when everyone has closed down,” Fay said. 

Through his own label the new bands’ music gets into the right hands. “These guys get played,” the Lyric’s executive producer said. “They become successful.

“Their songs are not defined by being republican songs or loyalist songs,” he added. “Their songs are about teenage angst, love and all that.”

“Good Vibrations” is about the reinvention of rock and roll, a do-it-yourself attitude, about not being told by commercial forces what to write and play.

There was a Belfast musical backdrop from the 1960s: Van Morrison and his group Them and others, and the showbands. But all had changed by the time the Clash came in 1977; their hotel, the Europa, was bombed. “And they went back to London rather than do the gig in the Ulster Hall,” Fay said. “It was a barren town.”

A few stars did go. “Rory Gallagher was held in huge regard,” he said. But his type of rock and roll was not the style that was emerging as Belfast’s music.

“It became more punk and poppy in its way,” Fay said.

Punk legends were born: the Undertones, Rudi, the Outcasts and Stiff Little Fingers, with songs like “Teenage Kicks,” “Just Another Teenage Rebel,” and “Alternative Ulster.”

They had shared influences: David Bowie and glam rockers like Marc Bolan of T Rex. But Hooley had his own heroes, notably Hank Williams.

Fay sees Williams as a connection back to the Ulster Scots wave to America, and as part of “cycle of influences.”

He said, “I want us to be regular visitors with shows. America is a place to engage with.”

Fay, who is husband to the artist Amanda Coogan, and father to Daniel, 16, said, “Theatre is called elitist, but it is the most accessible art form.”

One can write a play and then get friends to stage it in the upstairs of a bar. “Things can snowball from there big time,” he said.

Not that being a “producing house,” like the Lyric, is easy, as opposed to a “receiving house” doing old standards. It’s not.“There are very few in the UK in general,” Fay said. “They’re becoming rarer because they’re hard.”

Lyric sees itself as a “creative factory,” producing in-house, as it does, 80 percent of its program. 

But it also regards itself as part of a vibrant, accessible arts community.

In Belfast, Fay said, “there’s no mainstream or there’s no fringe, because everyone mingles together.”

For tickets and other details about “Good Vibrations: A Punk Rock Musical,” go to irishartscenter.org.